Is there a way to eat lower-carb as a vegetarian with dietary restrictions?
May 17, 2012 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Lowering carbs as a vegetarian with many diet limitations – this seems impossible and I'd love to hear how you navigate it.

I'd like to reduce my dependency on carbohydrates for a few reasons: to lose weight, to address feeling unsatiated by meals, and for better overall nutrition. Right now, the core of 75% of meals is carbohydrates – bread, pasta, rice. I am trying to up the veggie component but I wonder if I can do better.

There's two major restrictions that make this seem impossible. One, I'm a vegetarian and have been since I was a kid – I can't stand the texture of meat at all.

Two, I have a digestive disorder that requires extreme diligence to keep it at a level where I can maintain a semi-normal life. I can't eat the following without being ill, except tiny quantities: fruit, nuts, eggs, legumes, milk, textured vegetable protein, oats, coconut milk, fried foods, spicy food, and the worst trigger ever, barley. I can eat a small portion of potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, or quinoa.

On the positive side, I particularly love Japanese and Italian flavours, and I am not trying to go no-carb, just more in balance.

Have you dealt with similar restrictions? How did you handle it? Is there no other choice besides staying pastafied or learning to eat fish for the first time in 20 years?

Please don't give out to me! I find food extremely stressful to discuss and already feel like a terrible person over this.
posted by carbide to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Sorry, just to clarify that this – I can eat a small portion of potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, or quinoa. – was part of the restrictions. This isn't all I can eat!
posted by carbide at 12:32 PM on May 17, 2012

Where do you get your protein now? Can you eat things like tofu and tempeh? Seitan?
posted by something something at 12:40 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Entirely serious question: how do you feel about bacon? I know more than a couple vegetarians who can't stand the texture of beef/chicken/pork/fish but there's something about the texture of well-done bacon that's acceptable to them.
posted by Oktober at 12:45 PM on May 17, 2012

Best answer: Honestly, being a vegetarian isn't that significant of a restriction. I eat a mostly low-carb pescatarian diet (but probably only include seafood in 2 or 3 meals a week) and have no problems doing so, even at restaurants. The real challenge are your dietary restrictions. What are your current sources of protein? I get most of my protein from nuts and nut butters, eggs, legumes, soy products, and seafood, but it looks like none of these are on your list. Is tofu acceptable? What about brown rice?

Your dietary restrictions are similar to those of a certain condition a friend of mine has. I know that he also struggles with nutrient deficiencies and disease flare-ups related to food triggers. He has had detailed discussions with various healthcare providers about what, for him, constitutes a healthy diet. He needs to eat a low-residue diet, so for him, this almost necessitates eating "white" carbs like white pasta, rice, white bread, etc. This isn't a failure or a reason for him to feel guilty or terrible; it's a strategy for living with his health condition. Would you be comfortable discussing these diet questions with your current healthcare provider or a dietitian? Low-carb truly is not for everyone, and it may not be for you, and that's OK.
posted by pecanpies at 12:48 PM on May 17, 2012

There is a small subreddit for vegetarian ketoers, though it would probably be good to ask on /r/keto as well.

You might also be interested in reading this post about treating IBS with a low carb diet.

One specific tip I can give you is to seek out dietary fat. Too many low-carbers carry over the prejudice from "traditional" diets against fat, which makes the whole enterprise a little silly -- even people without dietary restrictions can only eat so much protein. Most of your calories (65%) on a low-carb diet should come from fat. Add oil, butter, mayo, low-carb dressings, cheese, cream, sour cream, etc. to everything, especially if you aren't eating meat. Vegetables, for example, become a lot more filling and caloric when you fry them and top with cheese or roast them in oil. You can make "crackers" out of cheese as well.
posted by callmejay at 12:54 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Add [...] butter, mayo, low-carb dressings, cheese, cream, sour cream, etc. to everything

I was going to recommend the same, but noticed milk was out. OP, can you clarify if milk products are OK? If so, which?
posted by pecanpies at 1:00 PM on May 17, 2012

Basically, there are three macro-nutrients. So if you're trying to lessen carbs, what are the fats and proteins you can subsitute? Can you eat lentils and other pulses, or do they count as legumes?

I've been making a lot of dishes lately that are veggies and beans (sorry, substitute a protein you can eat!) with kale or collards. There's something about the big hearty greens that takes the place of pasta for me - sort of similiarly chewy, I guess? And I'm not trying to go low-carb in general, but I have found that most of the things that I used to have over rice or pasta don't need either of those things if I add enough other veggies.

Quinoa porridge (made with almond or hemp milk or your substitute of choice) for breakfast can be a great high-protein meal with fruits and other toppings.
posted by ldthomps at 1:20 PM on May 17, 2012

I'm not vegetarian but my mother is, and she lost a lot of weight following low-carb principles. It's definitely harder, but not impossible. The thing to remember is that it's not a low-carb, high-protein diet, but a low-carb, high-fat diet. Fat will provide the most bang for your buck in terms of satiety levels and raise your insulin levels (and thus increase fat storage) the least. Don't be scared of using fat!

The fact that you don't eat eggs, nuts, milk and coconut milk makes things more difficult. What my mother did was eat an egg-white omelette in the morning (not because of health, but because she hates the taste of yolks), along with a coconut milk shake. Then for lunch she'd have different vegetables fried in ghee with Indian spices and a salad for dinner. She supplemented this with hot cocoa made with heavy cream or coconut milk. Are milk products like cream and cheese ok, or are all dairy products out? Take a look at this page and see what you can eat. You might have to eat more beans and legumes than I would, but I'm not sure how they would affect your digestive disorder and they might increase your carbs to a level too high for weight loss. Basically you don't want to be stuck in the zone of misery -- not low enough carbs to be really burning fat for energy, but not high enough carbs to get much energy from dietary carbs either.
posted by peacheater at 1:23 PM on May 17, 2012

You say that coconut milk is out. How about coconut flour?
You said that nuts are out. I'm assuming that rules out peanut butter or almond meal/flour. Can you eat flax seed meal?
Are all eggs out or could you eat egg whites?

I am a pescatarian eating a low carb diet but I do it by eating a lot of fruit, cheese, fake meats like Morningstar and Boca, yogurt, etc and it sounds like most of these things aren't acceptable to you.

Hummus? Guacamole? Tofu stir fries? Miso soup? If you go to some of the low carb recipe blogs they tell you how you can make carb substitutes like zucchini or cauliflower pasta, cauliflower pizza crust, a cauliflower substitute for mashed potatoes, etc. - I think you should look into these.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:24 PM on May 17, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone.

OP, can you clarify if milk products are OK?

Cheese and yoghurt are fine, a small bit of mayo is ok unless I'm hypersensitive, and milk and cream are totally out.

This isn't a failure or a reason for him to feel guilty or terrible; it's a strategy for living with his health condition. Would you be comfortable discussing these diet questions with your current healthcare provider or a dietitian? Low-carb truly is not for everyone, and it may not be for you, and that's OK.

Thanks, pecanpies, that's quite comforting. I've tried dieticians twice and both have sort of continued on as if I'm just being difficult in saying things making me ill, leaving me with plans I just can't use – maybe I should be asking my doctors if they know someone who won't do that.

Protein: I, er, definitely don't eat enough, but I eat tofu about twice a week. I can't eat seitan and I always forget about tempeh – I think it's ok, I'll test soon and see. Brown rice is too fibre-rich for me to eat too often, but ok in small amounts.
posted by carbide at 1:25 PM on May 17, 2012

One fairly simple thing you can do is reverse the proportions. So if you're eating a meal of 75% pasta and 25% steamed veggies, eat the same meal only with lots more veggies and significantly less pasta.

You could also try replacing grains with veggies whenever possible. One thing I do is use a leaf of cabbage in place of a bun or tortilla. I'd suggest looking at some raw vegan cookbooks for inspiration. They do lots of things like making pasta out of vegetables that might help you experience variety while eating mostly vegetables.
posted by overglow at 1:26 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're currently eating a lot of stir-fried or steamed veggies with pasta/rice, you might want to consider switching to shirataki noodles instead. They're tofu-based so they are low carb with the added benefit of adding protein. Also they are tasty.
posted by troublewithwolves at 1:48 PM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Definitely give the shirataki noodles a try, and don't be scared off by the "OMG they're smelly" stuff you may read. Drain them well, rinse them well, parboil for a couple of minutes and you are set. A real lifesaver for this recovering carb addict.
posted by queensissy at 1:53 PM on May 17, 2012

I think it would help to really up your vegetable intake overall, because lots of people forget that you can get a ton of protein from vegetables alone. Like really try to take in a ton of vegetables, but the key is make sure you learn easy/quick and delicious ways to prepare them so you don't get overwhelmed and bored. If I were you I would start getting really into delicious stir-fries. Just chop up a ton of different things, and throw them in there with some oil. You can create amazing salads with lots of blue cheese, or feta, or goat cheese, or whatever you like. You can start getting into baked veggie dishes. You can start making awesome green smoothies full of a ton of leafy greens, plus fruit, yogurt, ice, etc. And the snacks, like baked kale chips, etc. There are tons of possibilities.
posted by cairdeas at 1:55 PM on May 17, 2012

Cheese and yoghurt are fine

Greek yogurt is a fantastic source of protein and fat. I eat plain greek yogurt, although there are many flavored kinds, too. Some of these have fruit mixed in, though - something to watch out for. You could add a bit of honey as a sweetener. It's also a good replacement for mayo in lots of recipes - I use greek yogurt to make cucumber salads and in place of cream in soups. You can also roast cauliflower, puree it in a food processor or blender, and mix with yogurt, a little garlic, and some salt & pepper for a delicious and low-carb side.

And cheese! That opens so many doors. You can use cheese to add fat and flavor, or as a stand-alone food. If you're craving something crunchy like a chip/crisp, you can make Parmesan chips with nothing more than some grated cheese. Cheese can be a delicious vehicle for veggies, too. I like to cut thin slices of cheese and top them with cucumbers, radishes, or grape tomato halves.

(Also, I know I keep harping on the protein. I understand this is not a high-protein diet, but a low-carb/high-fat diet. I still like to make sure I'm including protein in my diet and given your dietary restrictions, thought this might be a challenge for you.)
posted by pecanpies at 1:55 PM on May 17, 2012

Best answer: I always forget about tempeh – I think it's ok, I'll test soon and see.

Good. If you buy it raw, it's best with a lot of cooking and seasoning, although if I'm hungry and impatient I sometime just eat it raw. I don't particularly recommend that since it's very bland, but it's perfectly healthy.

Better option if you're short on time: Tofurkey brand marinated tempeh strips. I put these in sandwiches all the time. Obviously, there are carbs in that sandwich, including the tempeh and bread, but it's also high in protein. I usually have two sandwiches with 4 tempeh strips each. That's slightly more than the official serving size of 7, which the website says has 12 grams of protein. I'm not a nutritionist, but I believe that's more than 20% of the RDA for a man, and more than 25% of the RDA for a woman. That's pretty high-protein for just one ingredient in one meal.

There are vegetables that are high in protein, like spinach. Google high-protein vegetarian foods/vegetables (there are lot of lists out there), and see which ones you can eat.

Of course, it's always a good idea (for anyone, especially vegetarians) to eat a wide variety of vegetables. You can still eat pasta, but go light on the pasta and heavy on the vegetables. (It's a myth that authentic pasta dishes have to be overwhelming dominated by the pasta itself.)
posted by John Cohen at 2:00 PM on May 17, 2012

A vegan protein shake each day -- soy, or hemp or pea -- will make a huge difference. Adding another serve of tofurkey is good and all, but protein shakes are an order of magnitude higher in protein. It's perfect for those like you who find it hard to get enough dietary protein.
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:33 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you start cutting out sugar -- refined, fake, etc? No splenda, no nothing. Maybe honey at the most.

That's made a big difference for me.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:47 PM on May 17, 2012

I don't know what your specific problem with nuts is, but can you eat pine nuts (pignolis)? I have nut allergies but can eat all the pine nuts I want because they come from a totally unrelated kind of plant. And sunflower seeds - sunflower seed butter is also tasty. I find that while a salad of just greens is not too filling, adding goat cheese, pine nuts, and roasted beets turns it into a real meal.

Though maybe better for winter, roasted root vegetables are also good and filling without being so full of starch (parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, carrots, beets, celery root, etc. can be used), and can be turned into a soup or stew or served on their own - you can cook them with oil and balsamic vinegar for a little sweetness and tartness, or add cheese to make them richer, etc.
posted by unsub at 4:01 PM on May 17, 2012

You can do a lot with cheese, yogurt, and tofu. I'm vegetarian and these are my major protein sources. Maybe you could experiment with slowly replacing some of your starchy carbs with these protein sources that work for you? For example, slowly decrease the rice while upping the tofu in your stir-fry.

As you and others have suggested, lowering the bread/pasta/rice and replacing it with veggies could also make a big difference.

How do you do with peanuts or peanut sauce?
posted by medusa at 7:58 PM on May 17, 2012

Greens are really your friend here - there are all sorts of preparations that will work for you, including Japanese and Italian. You can really fill up on kale, chard, spinach, bok choy, etc. and add in dairy or starch to supplement.
posted by judith at 9:27 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here are some of my other favorite (and extremely quick and easy which is a big part of why they are my favorite) ways to eat a LOT of vegetables.

-Chop a bunch of carrots into thin slices and fry them in olive oil with an onion or two, until the carrot slices and the onions are all soft and sweet. The chopping and frying take, I dunno, 10 minutes total? Whenever I do this I end up eating an insane amount of carrots in a sitting. I actually have to stop myself sometimes.

-I like to put an obscene amount of chard into a steamer basket and steam it on the stove. Seriously an amount that would be enough for a whole family. I steam the chard until it is so soft it melts in your mouth. Then I melt some butter and pour it over the chard as I transfer it to a bowl. This takes, maybe a minute to wash the chard and stick it in the steamer basket? And then it steams for maybe 15 and you don't have to watch it. (At least that's how long I steam it for.)

-Get a kabocha pumpkin. I don't know if you have them near you, but they are so delicious. What I do is chop the kabocha pumpkin into 4ths, take out the seeds, and coat it in a bit of olive oil. Prep time 5 minutes, but you have to be really strong to chop the kabocha because they are hard. Then roast it in the oven at 375 degrees. Some people say to roast it for 15 minutes or 30 minutes but it takes me an hour to get it how I like it. Maybe it's just my oven. Then I eat the entire thing whole. The skin is good. The inside is good. It is like eating dessert for me. And I am not one of those people who eschews actual dessert so my perspective is not just really weird from that. I could eat kabocha with every meal.
posted by cairdeas at 11:27 PM on May 17, 2012

Eat lots of vegetables and try to make that the center of your meal. So, say, instead of making a stir-fry as a side to a pasta dish, make two stir-fries (or a stir-fry and some roasted vegetables). It's possible to make a nice hearty vegetable dish that'll really fill you up, but you may also need some more volume of food than you're used to and/or more snacks, so keep that in mind. One bowl of pasta might take a bowl and a half of veggies to replace, or two bowls.

Don't worry about oil, it's calorie-dense but that's actually a good thing if you're trying to cut carbs and meat. Roasted vegetables with enough oil (to get them crispy) and salt/pepper are really good. Similarly stir-fries, and there are a few different sauces and styles you can learn to make to keep variety up. My personal favorite is 'qingchao', clear-fried vegetables. They are often on restaurant menus as "vegetables in clear sauce" - it's basically just oil, vegetables, broth/boullion/msg and salt (the secret to making it as good as restaurant versions, is plenty of salt). But you can also add ginger, soy sauce, garlic, chili peppers or chili oil, shaoxing or sherry wine, vinegar...

The suggestion to try vegan cookbooks was really good, too - or raw food cookbooks. Low-carb cookbooks might also have suggestions for pasta alternatives, rice alternatives, and so on.
posted by Lady Li at 11:42 PM on May 17, 2012

This blog post has what may be good suggestions about replacing pasta and rice with vegetables (though the recipe itself contains meat.)
posted by Cheese Monster at 12:53 AM on May 18, 2012

Can you eat cheese?

I don't know if this German cheese is available in the US: Harzer

"Harzer contains very little fat (less than 1%) but extremely high protein (usually around 30%) and therefore is often used for special diets and sport nutrition."

I grew up with it. But if you did not, the taste may be not for the faint of heart...
100 grams cost a euro in Germany. I checked with google, you can buy it in the UK and the US but it is expensive there.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 2:35 AM on May 18, 2012

posted by yoyo_nyc at 2:36 AM on May 18, 2012

See also Vegans Muscle Their Way Into Bodybuilding
posted by y2karl at 9:31 AM on May 18, 2012

Have you tried spaghetti squash as a pasta substitute?
posted by 4ster at 9:51 AM on May 18, 2012

It'd be hypocritical to call myself a vegetarian, but i prefer to not have meat most of the time. (Aka, all bets are off with shawrma)

I've been having vegetarian Yong Tau Foo (ie, Yong Tau Foo minus the icky meaty stuff) with a dash of curry lately as my staple diet. It's healthy, boiled, tasty, filling and doesn't do too much carbs if you go easy on rice/ noodles.
posted by the cydonian at 10:36 AM on May 18, 2012

(missed the portion on coconut milk; you might want to stay clear of the curry then)
posted by the cydonian at 10:37 AM on May 18, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions! I'm feeling much more positive about it.

I'm taking the protein comments seriously and looking at what I can do, and generally going more additive than restrictive: instead of focusing on eliminating the carbohydrates, I'm trying to get full on protein, fats and vegetables. Maybe low-carbohydrate is unrealistic for me, but I can (as several people suggested) at least decrease the role they play in meals, and that sounds like a good change for now.
posted by carbide at 3:30 PM on May 21, 2012

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